How the revolt within the Grand Old Party ended

Come the National New Year, he may have expected to partake the traditional sweetmeats of kevun and kokis as the new leader of the main opposition United National Party (UNP).

For months, he campaigned on his own, visiting Buddhist temples countrywide. That was part of his efforts to become leader of his party. His images filled TV screens, which projected him the new leader of not just the south but also the entire nation. During the campaign for the March 17 local polls, he said he would be the UNP leader from April 12. This date is the deadline for the election of a UNP leader under the party’s new constitution. Like the current President of the Republic, Mahinda Rajapaksa from Hambantota, the next would also be the UNP President from that fast developing southern town. That was himself.

“The responsibility of the leadership,” he said, “should not be to protect the position and run away from responsibilities. The duty should be to face challenges and protect the members. I don’t want to be selected the leader, I want to be elected; Mama Pakshaye Nayakaya venava venawa mai (I will most certainly become the leader of the party)”, he declared.

Just this week, the man who led a formidable section of the UNP, 44-year-old Sajith Premadasa, accepted the post of co-deputy leader of the party. One southern parliamentarian had declared that when the young Premadasa became Prime Minister, he would be Minister of Fisheries and when he becomes President, he would be the Prime Minister. The leadership aspirant and his supporters waxed eloquent on TV talk shows and media interviews on the virtues of the leader in waiting. Their conduct was sometimes brusque and abrasive.

Premadasa was marketed as the best alternative to Ranil Wickremesinghe to lead the beleaguered party. Thereafter, he was projected as UNP’s challenge to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

This week, during three different meetings of the Working Committee, Premadasa chose not to contest the leadership. Instead, he was offered and accepted the post of a Co-Deputy Leader. Premadasa had obtained a document from UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake defining the functions that would be assigned to him. That diluted the role played by the hitherto only Deputy Leader of the party, Karu Jayasuriya and raised some new questions.

Jayasuriya, who returned to the UNP fold after a stint in the UPFA Government, has laboured hard to rebuild the party. He was in charge of the local polls campaign. Colombo MP Ravi Karunanayake who had sought a position equal to that of Premadasa when reforms took place under the UNP constitution was another casualty. Karunanayake, who campaigned staunchly against Premadasa, behind the scene, was left dejected and distraught. “Conspirators and instigators get positions.” he lamented.

To the discerning, that Premadasa would climb down was clear. Beleaguered UNP Leader Wickremesinghe in a rare moment acted decisively. Immediately after the Local Government elections were concluded, and the results came, he summoned the Working Committee of the party to decide on the new set of officials under the new constitution. The UNP came a cropper in the polls, winning only nine councils, however close many others had been, but its vote base had marginally increased from 29 percent to 34.

Taken off-guard at the swiftness, Premadasa told the Sunday Times last week that he favoured a “consensus decision.” He declared, “What is most favoured is a consensus but the party as a whole will have to decide.” However, the remarks were lost on most Premadasa loyalists. They contended that Premadasa was merely re-iterating provisions in the new UNP constitution that a consensus was the first recourse to the election of a leader. Only if it failed that the matter would go for a secret ballot, they argued.
As pointed out in these columns (the Sunday Times – March 13), behind the veneer of an apparent togetherness by leaders of the UNP for the just concluded local polls, the battle for leadership had gathered speed. Whilst overt efforts were to win the polls, covert campaigns were underway by the rival factions for the leadership battle.

Even if Wickremesinghe is not a crowd puller, and as his closest aides admit not good at public relations, a sine qua non in politics, he is still a grandmaster in the opposition’s chessboard. He had secretly formulated his strategies. It began to unfold only at three different meetings of the Working Committee, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week, the last joined by the Parliamentary Group, played out. Just ahead of these events, there were some eyebrows raised when the last batch of UNPers to join the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government made contact with their erstwhile parliamentary colleagues.

If they publicly declared that Wickremesinghe was the cause for their crossover, they were asking their one time colleagues to support him. These MPs left the UNP only last year, ahead of the April parliamentary elections. Since then, they had continued to castigate Wickremesinghe. State run media quoted sections of the Buddhist clergy as saying that Wickremesinghe was the most suited for the leadership. All this made clear that Premadasa, who had also maintained a dialogue with sections of the UPFA leadership was now out of favour. Public confirmation of this came on Friday when President Rajapaksa met with Editors and journalists for his periodic Q & A session at ‘Temple Trees’.

He was questioned about the telephone call he made to congratulate Wickremesinghe upon being re-elected as UNP leader. No doubt it was Wickremesinghe’s birthday (Thursday, March 24), but he said he would have called Premadasa if he had become the party leader. Rajapaksa added, “There should always be a strong opposition, they shouldn’t be divided. There is a way of removing a party leader. It cannot be done in a haphazard way. The people aspiring to be leaders should also remember the service done by Ranil Wickremesinghe and also have a sense of gratitude. It was Ranil who single handedly defended President R. Premadasa when he faced impeachment from a section within the party”.

On Monday morning, hours ahead of the Working Committee’s first meeting scheduled for 4 p.m., supporters gathered at the residence of Moneragala District UNP parliamentarian Ranjit Madduma Bandara. It is located in Kandewatte Terrace, (Nugegoda) just three blocks away from the residence of late Lasantha Wickremetunga, Founder Editor of the Sunday Leader. With the death of Bodhi Ranasinghe, whose home at Kalinga Mawatha off Polhengoda in Colombo East was the meeting place for the Premadasa faction, the ‘headquarters’ shifted to Madduma Bandara’s residence. Premadasa arrived for the meeting accompanied by his wife Jalani. Among those present were UNP parliamentarians Dayasiri Jayasekera, Talatha Athukorale, Sujeeva Senasinghe and other grassroots level UNP politicians. This was the day after the statement by Premadasa to the Sunday Times that he would opt for “consensus” — which was read as not wanting a direct challenge to Wickremesinghe. They went through the names of the Electoral College and counted how many votes they could muster. It was not going to be a walk in the park.

Those at the Madduma Bandara residence still exhorted the need for Premadasa to stake his claim for the leadership. In the event of a defeat, they pointed out, that he could say that was why he had called for the expansion of the Electoral College to include the party leadership at the provincial and local level. At present, it comprises the Working Committee and the party’s Parliamentary Group. They also argued that as a “democrat” Premadasa could argue that he spearheaded reforms within the party and was only contesting to prove a point — that a new leadership was necessary. Probing questions were raised by Premadasa as well as his wife, Jalani. The first hint of a reluctance on Premadasa’s part to face a vote with the incumbent Wickremesinghe began to appear.

The agenda for the Working Committee meeting on Monday had some key subjects. It began with a condolence vote on the late Bodhi Ranasinghe, a virtual Chief of Staff for Premadasa having been a close confidant of Wickremesinghe at one time.

Thereafter, the UNP General Secretary presented a six-page report on the outcome of the March 17 local council elections. He said the party’s slogan, though not known to many during the polls, was “Venasakata mula puramu – Rata yali goda nagamu (Let us begin the movement for change – Let us rebuild the nation).” He accused the state media of blatantly violating polls laws. The private media were used for specific programmes, which contravened polls laws. A village level development programme was used as a ruse to win polls. He also noted that the UNP had increased its vote base from 29.34 percent (during the parliamentary elections in April last year) to 34 percent. That was a five percent increase. He said in 17 local authorities, the defeat was by less than a thousand votes.

Attanayake noted that there were several reasons for suspicion over the conduct of polls. One such instance is the lower voter turnout. The media had reported that the voter turnout in the morning was 25 percent. However, by 4 p.m. they had claimed that it had risen to 60 percent. He noted that the 25 percent was from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. whilst from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. it was 35 percent. He said there was a need to verify from UNP Polling Agents how this sudden spurt in voting took place during two hours. The ruling party had five more years in office. The state machinery was used to the fullest. It became clear that the UNP could not change the mindset of the voter, he observed.

Deputy Leader Jayasuriya, who led the polls campaign for the UNP, said he had received more than 400 telephone calls after the local polls. There were also complaints of shortcomings. Since his aim was to work towards the setting up of a UNP government in the future, Jayasuriya said he was willing to make any sacrifice. His position as Deputy Leader was available to anyone if that would ensure unity. He was making the offer in the better interests of the party, he said.

Jayasuriya added, “There appears to be external interference” in the internal affairs of the party. He had learnt of this from outside sources. Without elaborating, he said this should not be allowed to happen.
The third item on the agenda was the procedure for appointments of heads and opposition leaders to the local authorities where the UNP candidates contested. A committee was named to formulate procedures. Then came the question of the party’s May Day celebrations. It was decided that the event should take place at Bandarawela on May 1. The newly upgraded Bandarawela Municipality was one of the councils that the UNP won.

Then followed the subject of the party’s new constitution, and the measures necessary to implement it, especially with regard to the election of office-bearers. Former Attorney General and Defence Minister Tilak Marapana explained the legal provisions in the new UNP constitution. Leader Wickremesinghe, looking both confident and assertive, made his position clear. He said it was his intention to remain as leader of the party. If a consensus on the leadership issue (in terms article 8.1 of the UNP constitution) is not possible, he said, he would want the matter to be determined at a contest (in keeping with article 8.2). For that, a secret ballot was necessary. He emphasised that he wanted the matter resolved soon. Marapana said if there were no further names then Wickremesinghe stood elected. Sajith Premadasa said he wanted a consensus decision.

Wickremesinghe asked, “You had said that you wanted to contest. If that is what you want now, let us discuss it.”

Ranjit Atapattu, a former UNP Minister of Health, said there should be a consensus evolved without a division. He said that Karu Jayasuriya’s position be given to Premadasa to avoid a confrontation. However, he said the young Hambantota parliamentarian should express his consent to withdraw his bid for the party leader’s post.

Mangala Samaraweera, a one time staunch UPFAer who joined the UNP in August 2009, noted that the party had a strong team and there was a need to maintain unity. “Let us agree to support whoever becomes the leader. A majority of the Working Committee members want to see an end to this,” he said. Samaraweera, making a veiled reference to Premadasa’s announcements that he would be the UNP leader after April 12, said it did not do good to the party. Vajira Abeywardena, a former MP for Galle District and a staunch Wickremesinghe loyalist declared that changing the leader was a “hena gahana aparadayak” (akin to the strike of lightning).

Premadasa said, “whatever is done, what the people want must be considered.” He was to engage in some self-praise. “I don’t know why. However, wherever I go, I am like a magnet. The people get attracted to me,” he added. He said that the overwhelming support he received at the local polls should be considered. Wickremesinghe interrupted to say, “Let us finish this business off first. We must take a vote.”
Among those who wanted the issue settled without going for a division were former Kalutara District parliamentarian Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, Ravi Samaraweera (MP – Badulla District), Ranjan Ramanayake (MP – Ratnapura District), and Jayalath Jayawardena (MP-Gampaha District). John Ameratunga (MP- Gampaha District and Chief Opposition Whip) said the issue should not be allowed to drag on for too long and they should find a way out. There was no need to rush it and the matter could be taken up another day. Wickremesinghe however said he did not wish this to be prolonged. His close aides said such a delay could prompt Premadasa loyalists to move courts and thus delay the process.

Asking that Premadasa be given a little more time were Jayasuriya, Attanayake and Malik Samarawickrema, the latter appealing to Premadasa loyalists not to pressurise him into making a hasty decision. “Leave him alone, let him be”, he urged the vociferous Premadasa backers, especially Rosy Senanayake (MP – Colombo District), Sujeeva Senasinghe (MP-Colombo District) and Buddhika Pathirana (MP- Matara District). Wickremesinghe yielded but by then the Premadasa loyalists sensed they did not have the numbers and their campaign to have the young MP elected to the top job seemed to have run out of gas.

It was agreed that they could meet on Tuesday evening after having resolved the issue by a committee that was to break the imbroglio. It comprised Jayasuriya, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera (Chairman), Tissa Attanayake (General Secretary) and Kabir Hashim (Kegalle District). The Working Committee adjourned temporarily to allow the Committee to meet. Jayasuriya withdrew on the grounds that he had offered his post.

The three other members met at the UNP leader’s office room at Siri Kotha. When the Working Committee met on Tuesday, Attanayake the General Secretary said that they had met both Premadasa and Wickremesinghe. They said that the matter could be resolved by naming Premadasa to a post of Deputy Leader. Premadasa said that he wanted 48 hours time to consult his “stakeholders.”

Wickremesinghe was dismissive of his assertion. He said all 85 members of the Working Committee were stakeholders in the party’s main policymaking body. It was Joseph Michael Perera, a one time Speaker of Parliament and now National List MP, who intervened. He proposed that Premadasa be given 24 hours time to report to the Working Committee whether he, as announced earlier, wants a consensus decision or still wanted to contest for the leadership. It was decided that the meeting be put off by yet another day — until 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

That Tuesday morning, the UNP Parliamentary Group also met in the precincts of the Parliament complex. There were some heated exchanges. Sujeeva Senasinghe asked Wickremesinghe what the outcome of the Working Committee meeting was.

He replied that it was not necessary, at that moment, to disclose details. Dayasiri Jayasekera, Talatha Athukorale and Ranjit Madduma Bandara demanded that an explanation was necessary. The issue, they argued, was not about “throwing out” Wickremesinghe. However, the UNP leader stuck to his position.
On Wednesday morning, hours ahead of the decisive Working Committee meeting, there was hectic activity. The night before, Premadasa was telephoning several Working Committee members who were not entirely supportive of his candidature asking them for advice. What was significant was that he was not asking them for their support. One of the interlocutors between the party hierarchy was Malik Samarawickrema, a confidant of Wickremesinghe and a trouble shooter on occasions when the party faced a crisis; the man largely credited by the party for engineering the defections from the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime in 2001 that crashed her government and saw the UNP win the subsequent general election. That morning, General Secretary Attanayake received a telephone call from Premadasa seeking a one-on-one meeting. Attanayake readily obliged by driving to the Royal Park Residencies at Rajagiriya which the Hambantota UNP MP uses as his Colombo residence.

At his Royal Park Residencies apartment, Premadasa is learnt to have told Attanayake that media reports that he sought a contest was wrong. The UNP General Secretary persuaded him to accept the position of Deputy Leader with demarcated responsibilities. With the meeting over, Attanayake reported the outcome to Wickremesinghe. The UNP leader had a meeting in Parliament with Karu Jauyasuriya, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, John Ameratunga and Tissa Attanayake. It was agreed to allow Sajith to play a role as Deputy Leader.

Interesting enough, Premadasa’s close supporters in the Working Committee as well as the Parliamentary group, whom he described as “stakeholders” were unaware of the meeting with Attanayake. They were in the dark about Premadasa cutting a new deal. They were also in the dark about Attanayake’s recommendation that Premadasa accept the post of Deputy Leader with “demarcated responsibilities.” After Wickremesinghe’s meeting in Parliament with some senior leaders was over, Attanayake sent a written note in Sinhala to Premadasa defining his responsibilities. The Sunday Times is in possession of this note. Here is an English translation:

” 1. Appointment as the Deputy to the Leader of Opposition:.
Accordingly, appointment as a representative to the party leaders meeting in Parliament and directing work of the committees in Parliament.

“2 Carrying out the following duties as the Deputy Leader:
i. Setting up branches in villages under the party reforms programme and implementing a programme for this purpose with help of the organizers.
ii Directing the reorganisation of trade unions and supervision and direction of sub committees of the trade unions.
iii Setting up of provincial council and Local government council member groupings and to implement the related work.

3 Working in consultation with Advisory Committees in making different party appointments (Office bearers/ Organisers/Sub Committees/Working Committee members) under clause 8.8.” This clause refers to the UNP constitution where an Advisory committee comprising the Leader, Deputy Leader, Assistant Leader, General Secretary and Chairman are tasked to deal with with organisational matters,
Attanayake told Premadasa that the Working Committee meeting that evening could be concluded without any division. Premadasa, according to UNP sources, did not raise any objections. The Working Committee meeting, the third in as many days began one and half-hours late, just after Premadasa arrived. At the entrance to Siri Kotha, the UNP headquarters, a group of some 100 Premadasa supporters shouted “Apey Nayaka thumata jaya wey wah.” (Cheers for our leader). Members of the Parliamentary Group (not in the Working Committee) were waiting outside the meeting hall to be called in for a formal meeting of the Electoral College. Either by consensus or by secret vote Wickremesinghe was keen to end the meeting on Wednesday, just a day before his 62nd birthday.

When the meeting began, Wickremesinghe again announced his intention to lead the party. His name was seconded by D.M. Swaminathan, the newly appointed National List MP. Premadasa spoke about a settlement that will underscore “piliganeemath thiyanne oney” (there should be acceptance of what he wanted). The remarks, according to some present, suggested that Premadasa was hinting at a vote. Wickremesinghe said “I am sorry there is no room for more delays. I cannot allow the party to go to rack and ruin. Let us go for an election.”

An unsuspecting Ranjit Madduma Bandara hurriedly proposed the name of Sajith Premadasa. That was easily an embarrassing moment for Premadasa. He was visibly nervous. He told Bandara “Poddak Inna, Poddak, Poddak Inna (Wait a little. Wait a little). Just as he sat down, there was a momentary power failure. One Wickremesinghe loyalist walked out to make contact with a London based Sinhala/English website to ask whether they would report that this was a bad omen for Premadasa. The web operator was hesitant and said it was an “internal issue” of the party.

Ravi Karunanayake was livid. He said positions were now being given to people who have cried hoarse for election and not selection. “Now the same people are meekly accepting selection,” and pointed out that since May, last year, they had carried on a concerted campaign to wrest the UNP leadership. Though Premadasa said he was a “magnetic” figure, he drew only 27 percent of the votes in the Hambantota District during the local polls. Others who joined in the call for a settlement were former party treasurer Milroy Perera and Range Bandara (MP-Puttalam District).

Premadasa said he had been given “a piece of paper” with his responsibilities only at 3.30 p.m. that day. He said that was not sufficient and it had to be formalised. There were several who were joining in to persuade Premadasa to accept it. Others like Rosy Senanayake, Sujeeva Senasinghe and Buddhika Pathirana were telling him to contest. He was told that the note given to him had the official acknowledgement of the party. The UNP Parliamentary Group members who were outside were called in. Now, it turned into a formal meeting of the Electoral College.

With Ranil Wickremesinghe’s name proposed and Premadasa moving away from the expected challenge, Wickremsinghe was elected leader of the UNP without a contest. It was one big storm in a teacup, eventually. So was Sajith Premadasa appointed as Assistant Leader of the party to be appointed as co-deputy leader when the Working Committee meets one more time to make the adjustment to accommodate Premadasa in the new post as co-deputy leader. He would also be deputy to the Leader of the Opposition, a post not recognised by Parliament and one that is personal between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa. It will be recalled that when there was a similar tussle for the post of deputy leader in the UNP in 1975, then party leader J.R. Jayewardene resolved it by naming Ranasinghe Premadasa as deputy to the leader of the UNP (and not deputy leader of the UNP).

One of Sajith Premadasa’s staunchest supporters, Buddhika Pathirana could not contain his emotions. Those seated close to him heard Pathirana tell a Working Committee member “Aiye api blast neyda” (Brother, we are blasted no!!). His anger is understandable. Only days earlier, he had received a telephone call from a UPFA VIP asking him why he did not support Wickremesinghe. He was to reply that his loyalties were with Premadasa. Any support to Wickremesinghe, he said, would only strengthen the hand of Mangala Samaraweera in Matara. Pathirana and Samaraweera, though both in the same party, are archrivals.

And so, Wickremesinghe won the day. The long simmering party feud was resolved, clearly not to everyone’s liking.

Premadasa now has the post of Deputy Leader, a position which he had been offered only months earlier, by his party leader in a bid to settle the leadership crisis. However, he then rejected it and insisted he wanted the leadership and vowed “nayakaya venawa venawa mai” or will definitely become the leader.
UNP parliamentarians and local authority leaders who backed Premadasa were naturally dejected by his volte face. That night they gathered again at the Kandewatte Terrace residence of Ranjit Madduma Bandara. Among those present were Ranjit Aluvihara, Sujeeva Senasinghe and Rosy Senanayake. There was a post mortem examination of the events. During the discussion, questions were raised over why Premadasa chose to accept the post of Deputy Leader. Some said he wilted under intense government pressure. Others argued it was due to personal reasons.

While this discussion was under way, Madduma Bandara’s mobile phone rang. The caller was Sajith Premadasa. It was past 10 at night. Asked what he was doing, Madduma Bandarana said “kattiyak ekka innawa” (I’m with some people). Premadasa said that he would come over to Bandara’s house in 10 minutes. Premadasa found there was only the Moneragala MP and chief occupant there when he arrived. If he found himself alone there, it was the case with his newfound followers countrywide. The wide publicity he received every day, particularly through a private TV channel, sent his popularity soaring and won for him thousands of supporters in the districts. Some even ended up as candidates for the local polls.

Now, these supporters could face the wrath of the rest of the UNP leadership for creating divisions in the party. Protagonists of Premadasa complain that he did not make any explanation as to why he backtracked at the last minute. “If he cannot democratically challenge Wickremesinghe, how is he going to be a match for President Rajapaksa? asked one of his staunch backers who went on to say that in the weeks and months to come, Premadasa’s biggest challenge would be to face the people who had reposed their confidence in him.

These changes, no doubt, brought two casualties. One was Deputy Leader, Jayasuriya. The Working Committee did not pay any attention to his role or his own functions in rushing to appease Premadasa with a clear demarcation of responsibilities. Besides leading the polls campaign and the Grama Charika programme, some party insiders say he had borne the responsibility for a variety of organisational matters. On the other hand, some of the responsibilities given to Premadasa, senior UNPers argue, are “not worth the paper they are written on.” One is his appointment as Deputy to the Leader of the Opposition. The Republic’s Constitution makes provision only for a Leader of the Opposition and not for a deputy. Hence, even during Wickremesinghe’s absence from Sri Lanka, Premadasa will not be able to officiate as acting Leader of the Opposition. Nor will this position be recognised officially by the Speaker.
The privilege of attending party leader’s meeting is not an exclusive assignment to Premadasa. There are other parliamentarians entrusted with the same task. Already a chain command exists within the UNP for setting up branches in the provinces. It is through the General Secretary and flows through District and electorate leaders.

The other casualty is Ravi Karunanayake, an archrival of Premadasa. It was only in February he complained to the UNP leadership about Premadasa heaping personal abuse on him. He demanded and investigation into the matter. Now that the polls are over, this inquiry is to begin anytime now. UNP sources say that another post of Deputy Leader could be granted to Karunanayake any time. The post of National Organiser was also mentioned, though it would be a toss up with Mangala Samaraweera for that post. However, according to these sources, there was also the possibility of further amendments to the UNP constitution.

Wickremesinghe has after months of trials and tribulations retained the UNP leadership. The crisis within the party is seemingly over with Premadasa now accepting to be a co-Deputy Leader. In a second decisive move, Wickremesinghe quickly arranged a belated birthday party on Friday (March 25) and invited all the Working Committee members and the Parliamentary Group members and their spouses to his 5th Lane residence.

After a long time, it seems that this was a United National Party. Sajith Premadasa was there and in fact one of the last to leave at well past 11 p.m when all others but ten had left. John Ameratunge, the veteran man for all seasons took the microphone and invited the young bucks to engage in a sing song. They obliged serenading into the night. One favourite was Yanna rata vatey (Lets go around the country) while there were some songs judiciously left out; one of them being Premadasa’s theme song in the last few months Master Sir mata himithana denna (Master Sir give me my due place). Wickremesinghe himself advised Premadasa not to burst into song saying he was now a Deputy Leader, after all.

A plethora of questions nevertheless remain as the UNP continues to function as the main opposition party in Sri Lanka. Month-long moves to change the leadership have come to naught and only caused dissensions within the party. Its rank and file is left disheartened and the millions of voters looking towards the party to offer stiff resistance to a powerful government, both in parliament and outside, have been left with a feeling of being helplessness. It will need much more than a single convivial evening to bring back unity to the party and a lot of hard work to be ‘one with the people’ and win elections once again.


Courtesy: Sunday Times